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What is a Novel?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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A novel is a fictional piece of prose that is typically written in a narrative style and presented as a bound book. Novels tell stories, which are usually defined as a series of events described in a sequence. The novel has been a part of human culture for over a thousand years, although its origins are somewhat debated. Regardless of how it began, the novel has risen to prominence and remained one of the most popular and treasured examples of human culture and writing. Its form and presentation tends to change with the times, but it remains an essential part of the literary cultures of nearly all societies around the world.

Required Elements

Novels are different from stories, poems, and narratives in a number of key respects. Though they are presented in the form of a book, they are much more than that — in most cases, any bound paper constitutes a book. All novels are books, therefore, but not all books are novels.

Most literary scholars define novels by what they contain and how they are presented. First, a novel must written down rather than told through an oral account. Many ancient stories were passed down from generation to generation through story tellers, and though many of these may have been long enough or complex enough to be novels, they do not qualify unless they are recorded in some permanent way.

The work must also be wholly fictitious. Personal reflections, recounting of actual events, or historical reports do not qualify; neither do myths, which tend to have their basis in reality or theology. So long as it is written down and is entirely a work of the author or authors’ imagination, it will usually qualify. There is no universally established guideline for a novel’s length, point-of-view, or even establishment of a moral or philosophical point. Most of the time, though, the storyline must be somewhat complex, and there must be several angles to the narrative. The main differences between a short story and a novel are length and plot development. As a general rule, works up to 100 pages are short stories; longer works cross the line into novel territory.

The only exception to this rule is the novella, which is usually held to be a work of fiction that falls somewhere between a short story and a novel. There is no defined rule for when a work transitions between these phases, and much is left up to the discretion of the reader. Novellas are typically shorter than ordinary novels and often contain only a few characters, but not always. The distinction is usually quite fluid.

Early Examples

An early Sanskrit story called Dasakumaracarita may be the earliest example, though an 11th century Japanese book called The Tale of Genji is more commonly accepted as the origin of modern novels. This tale was written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, a minor court member. It traces the heroics and female conquests of the main character, whom many have dubbed “a Japanese Don Juan.” It is perhaps in this work that novels gained their reputation for being, at times, a bit silly and trifling, despite numerous examples throughout the centuries of superlative writing in the style.

Distribution and Influence

The first novels existed as single outputs — wide distribution was impossible until the use of printing presses became common throughout the world. Even large-scale printing did not make these works immediately popular, though. Throughout the centuries, the novel stumbled along with great waxing and waning in popularity. Many modern examples of so-called great masterpieces were written throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, when novels finally gained a permanent position as an acceptable form of literature. Since that time, they have become the most common form of published literature, far outpacing plays, poetry, and works of non-fiction that once held sway over the literate world.

Cultural Significance and Power

Novels are often beloved for their creation of spectacular worlds, empathetic characters, and carefully thought out arguments. They are often seen as a boundless realm of exploration and creativity, with subgenres springing up to include nearly every type of subject that can be written about. They occur in many genres, from science fiction to business, women’s interest, and legal thrillers.

The abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin is sometimes cited as a major influence that drew the United States toward the Civil War. In the late 19th century, it was not uncommon for people to jam boatyards and mob newspaper stands for the next chapter of Charles Dickens' latest serialized work, either. In the early 2000s the success of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series sparked hundreds of midnight bookstore openings and lavish parties around the world at the first release of each book.

Longevity and Evolution

This literary style remains cost-effective despite the range of things that can be included. Unlike the soaring costs of special effects and computer graphics needed to make a fantastical movie, authors need only imagination and talent to create expansive worlds and detailed characters out of words alone.

In many ways, the Internet has also helped reshape this type of writing. So-called “e-books” have provided a cost-effective mechanism for distributing material electronically, and a number of writers also publish their work to the web on blogs or personal web pages. Graphic novels — that is, novels made up almost entirely of pictures or detailed illustration — have also found mainstream popularity.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Language & Humanities. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon339914 — On Jun 28, 2013

I love to write novels which are romantic and tragic in nature, and also poems having same nature. Could someone who is literally very experienced in this field please guide me?

By anon273581 — On Jun 07, 2012

I am 11 and I have started my first ever novel. So far in my life I have been trying to find a career path that I enjoy and love. And writing seems to be what I want to do now. If there are any writers who are more experienced than I, could they please give me good advice?

By anon139574 — On Jan 05, 2011

a nice article to understand a link between novels and short stories.

By anon122499 — On Oct 28, 2010

The Canterbury Tales is a poem.

By anon102725 — On Aug 09, 2010

What is The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien? is it a novel?

By alex94 — On Jul 04, 2010

@cmsmith10: I think it is great that you want to publish your novel! I had a friend who was an avid writer and I encouraged her to get some of them published. She was terrified to even try. She said that she was afraid of rejection. If you are passionate about your writing and your dream is to be published, then you should go for it. Don’t expect to get published on your first attempt. This rarely happens. With fiction, make sure your characters are interesting. Always have a unique plot. Publishers are looking for what will sell. You need to appeal to a large audience.

When you feel as though your novel is ready, publication is the next step. Make yourself familiar with the market. Do plenty of research on publishers in your particular genre. Also, do plenty of research on agents. Be leery of a publishing company that says that they will accept you the first time and pay you a load of cash up front. That is probably a scam. Find a reputable publishing company and send a query letter. You may send out many letters before someone shows interest. Don’t let that get you down. Once you find an interested publisher and they offer you a contract, acquire a lawyer. Never sign anything without legal counsel.

Good luck with your novel!

By cmsmith10 — On Jul 04, 2010

I love to write. I have been writing fiction for many years. I have been thinking about trying to get my writing published. How would I go about publishing a novel?

By anon51914 — On Nov 10, 2009

Chaucer's Canterbury tales is not a novel as it is not written in prose.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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